One of the questions I’m most often asked is:
“What lenses should I use for my food photography?”
The lenses you use for your food photography will completely change the feel of your photos. Forget the camera body, it’s all about the lenses. Someone wise once said “If you’ve got $600 to spend on a camera, spend $200 on the camera body, and $400 on the lens”.
But it’s not always as simple as it seems.
If you’re overwhelmed by all the options and all the techie stuff that comes with understanding and choosing the right lens for your food photography, keep reading. In this two-part series I’m going to break it down simply for you, to take the mystery out of lenses.
While you definitely don’t need to spend thousands of $$ on a camera or a lens to produce great food photography, this series is going to focus on lenses for DSLR cameras. You can find the right lens for you in whatever budget you have, so you don’t need to be spending big bucks to get great results.
How to choose your food photography lenses
It’s easy in this age of internet sharing to get hung up on certain brands of lens and camera (ahem, Canon 5D mk III anyone?).
But I’m here to tell you NOT to get hung up on a brand name, or just buy a lens and camera because “it’s what everyone else is using”. Do your research and pick what’s right for you. There are a million lenses out there, and they aren’t one size fits all.
The trick to choosing the perfect lens (or lenses) for your food photography is to understand what you’re trying to achieve in your photos, and knowing what kind of lens will help you achieve that.
You could have the best wide angle lens in the world, but if you want to take tight, straight on shots of cut loaf cakes, you’ll be sorely disappointed with the results.
In this two-part series, we’ll look at the characteristics of lenses, rather than particular brands or models. By the end, you’ll understand how different lenses behave on different cameras, what impact this will have on your food photography, and ultimately, how to chose the right lens for you.
Focal length is THE key characteristic for food photography lenses
We’re going to spend this first post in our series really understanding what effect the focal length of a lens has on your food photography, because it’s the key feature to consider when deciding whether a lens is right for you.
That doesn’t mean that the other features of a lens aren’t important! We’ll be covering that in part 2 😉 The focal length will make one of the biggest differences to the look of your photos though.
Before we take a look at some food photos taken at different focal lengths, let’s make sure we recap some basics.
What is the focal length of a lens?
Let’s kick off with the geeky stuff. The focal length is measured in mm, and is the distance between the camera’s sensor and the “point of convergence” (the point at which the light rays cross in your lens to form a sharp image on the sensor). The higher mm number is, the more zoomed the image will appear. So a 100mm lens is more “zoomed in” than a 50mm lens.
Crop frame vs full frame – what it is and what it means
In order to understand what impact the focal length of a lens has on the photo, we need to understand the difference between a full frame and crop frame camera.
The sensor in a digital camera is what captures the information that will become your photo. It replaces the function of the film in an analogue camera, so you can kind of think of it as the film of your DSLR.
The standard sensor size is equivalent to 35mm film, and we call this a “full frame” camera. Any smaller sensors are referred to as “crop frame” and anything bigger is either a medium format or a large format sensor.
So what effect does the sensor size have on a camera? Well, it’s actually pretty simple to understand. Here’s an example with a lovely picture of a bike:
If you were standing in one position with this bike in front of you, the full picture is the photo you would get with a full frame camera. What’s inside the red box is the photo you would get with the same lens on a crop frame camera.
The amount that the image will be cropped depends on your camera. Each crop frame camera has a “crop factor”, and you can find yours out by googling it. My Canon 80D has a crop factor of 1.6x.
What this means for lenses, is that when you put a lens on a crop frame camera, you have to multiply the focal length by the crop factor to get your equivalent focal length. Keep reading to understand what impact different focal lengths have on your food photography.
Here’s an example to figure out the equivalent focal length of a 50mm lens being used on a crop frame camera with a crop factor of 1.6x:
50 x 1.6 = 80
Therefore the equivalent focal length = 80mm
Whether you have a full frame camera or a crop frame doesn’t really matter too much, but you should bear this in mind when choosing lenses for your food photography.
Important – Some lenses are designed specifically to work with only cropped frame sensors, which means if you upgrade your camera body to a full frame in the future, you won’t be able to use your lens effectively on your new camera.
The effect that the focal length has when choosing your food photography lens
Ok, so now we’re going to look at exactly what impact a focal length has on a photo. All the focal lengths I’ll be labelling in this post are my equivalent focal lengths.
Focal Length and the zoom effect
In our first example, let’s look at the effect that focal length of the lens has when the camera is in exactly the same position on a tripod. The only thing that we’re going to change is the lens. Here’s a photo of the setup.
And here’s what the camera is seeing through each of the different focal lengths.
Quite a dramatic difference, huh?
You can clearly see the effect that a longer focal length has. The 28mm lens shows a lot more of the surroundings, and the 100mm lens is much more “zoomed in” on the bread.
In theory, you could crop the 28mm photo, to show exactly the same amount of the frame as the 50mm or the 100mm, and you’d end up with the same composition.
But this isn’t usually a good idea. While the photos all have exactly the same amount of pixels, the bread is a different size in each of them. So in the 100mm example, the bread itself is made up of a lot more pixels than the bread in the 28mm. This means that if you crop the 28mm to be the same size as the 100mm photo, you won’t have nearly as much detail in the bread, and you’re left with a lower quality photo.
Perhaps by now you’re thinking “why can’t I just buy one 28mm lens, and move it closer to the bread to get the zoom and composition I want?” Here’s why…
Focal length and perspective
In our next example, rather than keep the tripod in the same position, we’re going to move the camera so we can keep the bread at the same size and in the same place in the frame.
To keep the bread looking the same size, this means that the 28mm lens will be very close up to the bread, and the 100mm lens will be much further away.
Let’s take a look at how different the photos look.
The key thing that you’re seeing here is how the perspective changes between the focal lengths, because of the wider field of view that you get with the shorter focal length lenses. You can see this clearly in the board that the bread’s sitting on.
In the 28mm photo the board looks longer at the front, or like the bread looks has moved further back. In reality, nothing has been changed or moved at all other than the camera.
When used for shots like this, a wide angle lens has a stretching effect on the edges of the photo, which makes the lines of perspective look more dramatic than they actually are. This can result in some weird looking food photography.
The last most obvious change is how much of the background is visible. The 100mm gives a much more “cropped” effect. Long focal length lenses are knows as “tighter” lenses, for this reason. This is also why the knife looks like it’s moving around the frame (when it’s not).
Remember, none of these focal lengths are “better” than the others… they are just different. Each focal length has its place for different kinds of food photography composition, and understanding your style will help you make a much more informed decision about the kind of lenses you need.
1. You don’t need to spend a fortune on food photography lenses to get great results, you just need to pick the RIGHT equipment.
2. If you have a crop frame camera, you’ll need to work out the equivalent focal length of a lens to understand how it will perform. To do this, times the focal length by the crop factor of your camera.
3. Longer focal lengths (e.g. 100mm) are tighter and more cropped than shorter focal lengths (e.g. 28mm).
4. Moving a shorter focal length lens closer to the subject will create a more distorted image than using a longer focal length further away from the subject
What lenses are you using for your food photography right now?